By Michael Heins
The state of Montana will still continue to inspect tobacco retailers to curb the sale of tobacco products to minors despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that affects federal inspections.
The State Department of Public Health and Human Services contracts with H.E.L.P. Committee (Havre Encourages Long-range Prevention) to conduct unannounced inspections in accordance with the SYNAR amendment.
The SYNAR amendment is a federal mandate that ties each states substance abuse treatment and prevention dollars, about 2 million per year in Montana, with a specific rate of compliance. Montana is required to meet or beat an 80 percent compliance rate by the year 2002. Montana's current rate of compliance is 75 percent, a far cry from the original compliance of about 50 percent in 1994.
On March 21, 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have the authority to regulate tobacco products and thus ceased all federal inspections. This does not supersede Montana's ability, authority or desire to conduct inspections. Montana currently is and will continue to inspect both over-the-counter and tobacco vending outlets.
The FDA was checking 3,000 outlets annually. The state checks around 500 outlets annually.
"The federal inspections were a useful tool in the national effort to reduce youth access to tobacco products," Ken Taylor chemical dependency officer for the Department of Health and Human Services said. "We want to advise Montana merchants that state inspections will continue."
Krista Young, program coordinator for Havre Encourages Long-Range Prevention (H.E.L.P.) is involved on the state level with enforcement. H.E.L.P. has the contract for the state enforcement for the sale of tobacco to minors. The state conducts random checks on outlets in the state that sell tobacco products, she said.
"We have trained groups of people that do the inspections. Many of the individual assisting the state are volunteers. We use youth between the ages of 14 to 17," Young said.
"We notify the businesses verbally within 24 hours of the offense. With the state, the owner is not fined until the fifth offense. The fine to the outlet clerk is $25 and it is considered an educational fee," she said.
This is a civil offense rather than a criminal offense. The owners are assessed a $500 educational fee on the fifth offense within a three-year period.
"We make every attempt to notify the business verbally the next business day after the violation has occurred. Stores found in compliance receive a certificate," she said.
The state law requires that managers and/or owners are notified in writing with-in 30 days and in turn the state notifies merchants that are found in compliance.
"The clerks are more likely to sell it to a minor that shows identification than to someone that does not have identification," Young said.
For the most part, the feed back has been very positive. Merchants realize that when they choose to sell an age-restricted product, it is their responsibility to insure that those products are not placed in the hands of minors. Merchants relate that they have shared the laws related to tobacco sales with employees, conducted special training, offered incentives for compliance and disciplined noncompliant employees.